An American Editor

March 9, 2022

Thinking Fiction: Passing Judgment on Other People’s Creative Work

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Carolyn Haley

If you’re a fiction author or editor and want to up your game, try judging a writing contest. That will give you a view from the other side, which will give your own work more perspective and meaning.

It will also test your technical knowledge. Contests can cover anything from storycraft to full publishing packages. Some contests are for works in process, others for published works; some are for short fiction, others for novels.

There are so many contests that the subject warrants its own essay. This essay is about my personal experience in judging independently published novels, since that’s the realm wherein I work. I figured that decades of editing, writing, producing, and reviewing novels qualified me to judge them in a competition.

The game-changer

The main challenge in judging creative works is how to balance subjectivity against objectivity. My first two contests involved just a handful of criteria and a handful of books. Evaluation was easy, so I eagerly stepped up to another level. The third contest, however, felt like a college course from which I barely graduated after exuding much blood, sweat, and tears.

The contest is a well-known one with status in indie publishing. Entrants pay a hefty fee to participate. The fees, however, do not add up enough to support cash prizes, or to pay the many judges. We judges volunteer for whatever reasons. Mine were curiosity and a desire to learn, with the fantasy that someday I would qualify to judge at the top tier.

As a multi-genre editor and reviewer secure in my skills, I was floored when assigned my category: Best First Novel. This required evaluating a mix of genres for “best package wins.” I might as well have been judging apples against bananas to decide which was the best fruit.

My titles included science fiction, fantasy, literary fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, magical realism, thrillers, a contemporary Western, two short-story collections, and a couple I’m not sure how to define.

The judging criteria comprised story content, story craft, story appropriateness to genre, mechanical correctness of the writing, quality of editing and proofreading, cover design (back, front, and spine, including images and typography), interior design (including images and typography), completeness (i.e., did it include an ISBN, title page, copyright page), and quality of paper and binding. Considering these factors exercised all the publishing-related skills and knowledge I’ve acquired over my career.

The judging system was numerical (scale of 1 to 10) per criterion, each book independent from the rest. The criteria were designed to make liking or disliking any factor irrelevant. While I’m used to dialing back personal taste in my work, here I had to unplug it entirely. That was hard enough. But then came the catch:

After scoring each book objectively, we then had to rank them subjectively in the event of a tie. A tie might occur because a judge scored two or more books to the same total; also because every category had three judges who worked blind to one another. Just as the contestants had no knowledge of who was judging their work, the judges had no knowledge of who was judging the same material. If, for example, one of the top positions came out even when the numbers were totted up, there had to be some way to distinguish them and determine the awards.

The conundrum

Unlike many literary contests these days, this one was for printed books only, which added a storage and disposal challenge. Boxes of books arrived in two installments over four months. As a new judge, I received only 20 books, compared to dozens for the experienced judges. We were not required to read them all cover to cover (thank goodness!) but to do a thorough scan of beginning, middle, and end, with sampling checks in between, to gauge story structure, style, and mechanicals. I read half of mine all the way through.

Subjectively, I liked only one book and two of the covers. Objectively, I immediately saw two contenders for the package win. A few qualifiers for second and third eventually emerged. The rest fell into the slush pile, from which I had to select a top 10.

I found that rating the books individually, then rating them against one another, was painful. It also took far more time than I’d anticipated, so I had to drop other activities for the contest duration. At about the halfway point, I started counting down time until it would be over.

The results have not been announced as of this writing, so I do not know whether my efforts were worth it for the contestants. But, hair-tearing as the experience was, it was worth it to me in terms of continuing education as an editor and a writer.

Key learning points

Editing and writing are open-ended pursuits, in that you never stop learning and can always improve. As well, each informs the other, whether at a professional or personal level.

Here is what I learned after judging Contest #3.

• The importance of cover design

Each entrant had to state the novel’s target audience on the entry form, so judges could analyze the effectiveness of the author’s aim. In my group, almost every book wobbled or failed in this respect. Only one front cover clearly conveyed what to expect inside the wrapper. Back covers ranged from lame to dreadful, with one being unreadable. Others skipped a summary blurb and just pasted reviews over the complete space. I can’t imagine why, because readers are unlikely to pick up a book that gives no clue to what the story is about.

Which directly relates to …

• The importance of genre selection

As I’ve learned from editing many first novels by indie authors, there’s always a good story idea. The question is how well it’s executed. This includes targeting the appropriate audience. In my contest category, it appeared that most authors did not know who they were writing for, which created a disconnect between the story, the style, the cover, the blurb, and the author’s desired readership. Frequently, the cover suggested one genre and the rest of the package conveyed another. In such cases, the book is almost certainly doomed to commercial failure.

• The importance of copyediting and proofreading

A good story compensates a lot for weak production, and in the real world, some readers don’t notice or care about technical bloopers in prose. Indeed, plenty of indie authors take advantage of that to release sloppy products — and they still gain sales and positive reviews. They’re not going to win awards, however. At least not from this judge. In my opinion, a handful of bloopers is forgivable; we’re all human. But a truckload of bloopers conveys any combination of author/publisher ignorance, laziness, or disdain for readers. Given how much information on writing and publishing is available via the internet, books, articles, and classes, it’s hard to believe authors and publishers can be so clueless. Perhaps competitions are their own route to education.

• The importance of interior design

I hadn’t thought much about typography and margins and such before this contest, but after seeing so many bad layouts, I came to understand why interior design matters. Some books are physically hard to read. Skinny gutters in fat paperbacks motivate you to break the spine because the book is springing back at you all the time and curving the lines into the crease. Bad vertical spacing and long line length can lead to pages so densely packed you keep losing your place as you read. Small type size requires magnifying lenses even for people under 40. And relying on the automatic spacing of a word processing program can lead to gappy, hard-to-read text that a professional typographer would never let out the door.

• The importance of paying attention

Two entrants in my category submitted advance reader copies (ARCs), while everybody else submitted published finals. The contest rules didn’t specifically prohibit ARCs, but when they showed up in my pile, I tried to get the entries disqualified. I thought it unfair to judge works in process against published works, since they might change in any direction from what I held in my hand.

It turned out the contest organizers weren’t paying attention, either. Their wording of the submission requirements was easy to misinterpret, allowing me and most of my contestants to assume that the requirement for books to be copyrighted in the contest year meant that they had to be published in the contest year. After I pointed this out, I was assured the submission language would be adjusted for the following year. But for this year, I had to treat unequal entries as equal.

This gave me an attitude problem. The principle of the thing was one matter; there was also a personal grievance. In 2020, one of my own novels had been bounced from a different contest because of copyright date. My book was originally published traditionally in 2015; when the contract expired, I took back the rights, repackaged it, and self-published it with a 2020 copyright date. The contest organizers decided that its real copyright was 2015 and disqualified the entry.

It happens that my story was first written decades earlier, and thus entered legitimate copyright status the moment it came into existence. Each revision, technically, engendered a new copyright. By the time I self-published it, the story had gone through dozens of iterations. So what was the true copyright date?

Methinks from these examples that contest requirements have to be precise on this point. I encourage all authors and judges to read the fine print twice, and in case of doubt, query the organizers before committing to involvement.

The power of wallet

The final lesson from this experience was the importance of money. Many (most?) indie authors get a whopping great sticker shock when they choose to publish independently. To develop a book to the quality standards established by traditional publishing takes either thousands of dollars or massive hours of self-education; usually both.

In my stack of entries, I could almost calculate each author’s budget by where the money obviously did or did not go. Likewise, the authors’ knowledge of the publishing process (or lack thereof) was transparent. The winner in my category was evident the moment I pulled it from the box. Everything about the book was outstanding — writing, editing, cover, blurb, binding, interior all reflected author payment for professional services. No other entrant came close. Some made me cringe in embarrassment for the author because the books were so poorly done.

Low production quality has been a dominant factor in all three contests I’ve judged. They’ve convinced me that the traditional arm of the publishing industry has nothing to worry about from the indie arm for a while yet to come. Indeed, when I read for recreation and relaxation, I go straight to traditionally published books from reputable houses. Despite how much they have trimmed staff and tightened budgets in recent years, traditional publishers still leave indie publishers in the dust when it comes to physical product.

Of course, there are exceptions, but if my limited experience reflects reality, then only a small percentage of independently published novels present themselves on par with the average traditionally published novel.

This is something to think about for indie authors — and the editors who help them — desiring to get great reviews, win awards, and make money in the fiction marketplace. I knew this in theory before I started judging, but now I know it for sure.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. She also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

September 3, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What is literature, anyway?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:28 pm

© Carolyn Haley

Early this year, I wrote about the challenges that contemporary-novel-writing authors will face in adapting to the “new normal” (https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2021/01/11/thinking-fiction-whats-next-for-novelists/).

Things haven’t settled down much in the months since then, but enough time has passed that new novels are coming out, through both traditional and indie publishing, in which authors who write contemporary fiction have adapted to the times in different ways.

Some of these works were in process when the combined pandemic and political upheavals started; others have been written since it became clear that daily life and culture were going to change permanently. Enough novels have crossed my desk for purposes of editing, reviewing, and recreational reading that I’m beginning to see patterns.

Even though these books qualify as commercial fiction, I’m interested in them collectively as a facet of literature. I read mainly American fiction but also samplings from western Europe and Canada; this essay is limited to personal observations about contemporary fiction written in or about those parts of the world.

Definition

To better understand what “literature” means today, and how it reflects our era vis-a-vis any other time, I turned to my trusty dictionary as a starting point.

Merriam-Webster Online Unabridged lists several definitions of “literature.” The one I was looking for is this:

3b: the body of written works produced in a particular language, country, or age

This definition embraces fiction, my central concern. But the literal definition does not expand to include purpose, so I went internet trolling to find a more nuanced meaning.

The first search results (I stopped after 20) agreed in principle, albeit with different wording, that the purpose of literature is to explore and express human nature. I refine that to mean creative writing that reveals truth and possibility through story. Doesn’t matter if it’s a simple genre romance or multi-generational saga or anything in between. Storytelling is as old as human civilization, and capturing it in writing is what constitutes literature.

In fiction publishing, there’s a distinction between literature as a written art and “literary” as a writing style and marketing category. My interest is in the former, and in seeing how authors across genres — the body of literature — are adapting to a global pandemic concurrent with intense sociopolitical changes.

Multiple adaptations

The trends I see so far among fiction authors are clustering in four approaches.

(1) Some novelists have simply incorporated societal changes into their stories, including peoples of all colors, cultures, and genders in their character sets as part of the norm of their characters’ worlds.

In physical descriptions, when characters are described at all, references to their racial or ethnic heritages are as generic as possible, country of origin omitted unless directly relevant to the story, and nonbinary sexuality alluded to by casual mentions, such as a man having a husband or a woman having a wife. All human varieties are assumed to be normal. No commentary about it in the narrative; the story just moves on.

(2) Other novelists have gone the apologia route, inserting front matter into their books to define their positions to readers before they launch into the story. Some literally apologize for even mentioning difficult subjects. Those subjects can be the pandemic or socially sensitive topics such as race, sexuality, politics, or violence.

(3) Another group has failed to separate their personal positions from their characters’ positions. I’ve seen this several times in prolific, popular series authors who are confident about their readerships. I usually read those books in pre-press for review, and recently they’ve been keeping me awake at night wondering how to honestly and fairly evaluate those works. Subtle, intermittent shifts in the narrative change the voice so reader attention is broken by what I call “author intrusion.” While the story is doing its job of expressing the position, the author seemingly can’t resist elbowing in (and the publisher’s editor[s] doesn’t elbow them back out), resulting in a distracting mixed message that undercuts the book’s own merits.

(4) Then there are authors who put their positions solidly into their characters’ mouths and actions, leaving themselves invisible but making their points loud and clear.

Art vs. propaganda

Just about every author writes from a political, emotional, and personal perspective, and has done so since the beginning of publishing time. Same is true for almost every creator who expresses through an artistic medium. People flock to the arts to find resonance for their thoughts and feelings. Nothing abnormal there; in fact, that’s the nature of the beast.

The trick is how well they do it — or not. Authors who draw readers into their worlds and involve them in the trials and tribulations of the characters/setting/time succeed in conveying their messages. They make readers think and feel, and indirectly advance their own thoughts and feelings while remaining offstage. The work is its own self.

But when authors step outside the story world to manipulate reader impressions, things slide onto the slippery slope between fiction and propaganda. In my opinion, if authors feel so strongly about something that they can’t keep themselves out of their story, they should switch to a nonfiction vehicle. Or write op-eds (opinion-editorial pieces).

My personal opinion is meaningless in the larger scope. As a professional editor, I strive to put aside my biases and be as neutral and analytical as possible when I edit or review a fictional work. (But I’m totally subjective when I read for recreation!) If a story is historical fiction, I expect the author to adhere to the mores of the time for plausibility. Unfortunately, this has become a flashpoint in some circles, where people judge historical scenarios by contemporary mores.

I think this is unfair. In most cases, the purpose of the story is to show how things were in comparison to today’s sensibilities. Condemning authors for being accurate — and in some cases, calling to ban a book because it’s offensive to contemporary tastes — is unreasonable. Let literature, let art, inform us about the past to help us analyze the present and advance toward the future!

Who owns the viewpoint?

Some contemporary novelists have become scared to write what they want to say because they expect rejection or pushback, even shaming, from a polarized, judgmental audience. I see reports about this on social media, writing/editing/publishing forums, and articles in publishing newsletters. I also hear about it directly from clients and associates.

This anxiety differs from the common one among authors about their work being accepted by a publisher or an audience. Their anxiety has broadened to social and political spheres, which has undercut their confidence.

Some of them question whether to hire sensitivity readers in cases where they wrote outside their everyday reality. Which is worth thinking about, because storytellers have been walking in “other” shoes for as long as people have been writing stories. What’s different now to make that a problem?

I don’t see a problem, because it’s standard practice for conscientious authors to research what they don’t know and round up more-knowledgeable people to vet their work where it touches unfamiliar areas. Acknowledgment and dedication sections in books are full of credits to people who have helped authors with verisimilitude and factual accuracy.

A sensitivity reader is nothing more than an individual offering insight into a different culture or norm. Just like any technical professional, a sensitivity reader is only one person representing a great body of information. Their insight may be valuable, but it must be taken with the same grain of salt as any other resource. How the author handles that information is ultimately what counts.

Context is the bottom line

What’s often forgotten in the world of literary criticism is the world itself. We all belong to an immense, diverse population spread across the planet. Something that’s meaningful or controversial in the United States of America might be irrelevant, inflammatory, or incomprehensible somewhere else — even at a regional level. For instance, rural Alabama in a bayou environment has little to do with the Minnesota boundary waters, or downtown Los Angeles or New York.

A novel’s content has to be framed by not only its subject but also its context. Authors with commercial ambitions must direct their work toward a specific desired audience. By definition, that eliminates others.

“Otherness” has long been a concern of science fiction and fantasy authors. They have the advantage of being able to make it up. Who can speak for aliens from other planets?

Extrapolating from there, nobody on Earth can truly speak for anybody else, so the purpose of a novel is to present what’s happening to a unique character(s), expressed by a unique author, in hopes of finding commonality among unique readers.

The benefit of this is a constant stream of education and enlightenment about different people through their adventures and misadventures. The only thing that matters is story. Story expresses our shared humanity, and the infinite number of stories expresses our individuality. How wonderful is that?

The word that encompasses it all is “literature.”

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

May 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Three Types of Indie Editing Clients

Carolyn Haley

If you edit enough novels by independent authors, you’ll notice patterns in author types and ambitions. By this I mean broad patterns — which always contain exceptions — that can help guide editors in determining how to guide individual authors on their publishing journeys.

The three broad types of indie authors are those who (1) write to market (in my shorthand, the pragmatists); (2) write to express themselves then figure out how to find their audience (the dreamers); and (3) write for either/both reasons and believe that everyone is their audience (the in-betweeners).

In this context, writing styles and genres are irrelevant. It’s all about expectations and approach. Every indie editing job has its unique parameters and focal points, driven by author desire, budget, and publishing goal. How these weave together is where the distinctions come into play.

(1) The pragmatists

Authors who write to market tend to do their homework before presenting their books for editing. They have clear story ideas (usually lots of), intend to make money, and have invested time in researching the rules of the game. The economically efficient ones go for cheaper services than I can offer, unless they have well-lined pockets, although it happens occasionally that they regret their first choice(s) of editor and come to me for re-editing, either before publication or in reaction to embarrassing feedback from readers after they’ve released their books independently.

In the main, this group wants copyediting or proofreading. They are confident about their writing technique and storytelling, and often have worked with beta readers to iron out the wrinkles in their content. Then they just want somebody editorially competent to do the nitpicky housekeeping.

Almost always, these authors self-publish. Many of them are DIYers who have already formatted and illustrated their manuscripts when they submit them for editing. They know exactly which publishing service they will use to release the book, and how to promote their work.

Rarely do these authors care about the minutiae of punctuation and style. That’s the editor’s job, in their minds, and all they want is to have their text made clean and consistent. From the editor’s viewpoint, these are easy jobs, and what matters is to have straightforward conversations with the author to understand their particulars, then gallop on through the project.

(2) The dreamers

This group of authors is inclined in the opposite direction. They’ve had a story burbling inside them for years, and finally their life situation has given them a chance to pour it out. Many have retired from an unrelated career and are indulging at last in their dreams.

Unlike the pragmatists who write to market, the dreamers are usually under-informed about the realities of publishing, either traditional or independent. And they’ve done little or no study about composition, grammar, narrative structure, etc., since their school days.

They seek an editor who will be their partner and guide them through the wilderness. They lean hard on the editor’s knowledge and expertise. Viewed cynically, they can be considered artistes or hobbyists, and it’s sometimes painful to work with them, knowing their passionate effort has little chance of acceptance or sales in the real world. At the same time, they can be the most satisfying to work with, because of their enthusiasm, openness, unfettered creativity, and sometimes astonishing growth.

For these authors, editors need to provide a lot of information, starting with careful definition of services and costs for each level of service. Scope of work may include education in storycraft and the publishing process, including advice about composing query letters, synopses, and jacket blurbs and taglines. Often, these authors’ dream is for traditional publishing success, which may or may not be appropriate for their work. It helps a lot if the editor has publishing experience in addition to language and writing skills.

Emotionally, this group of authors is “needy” in comparison to the pragmatists, so editors should be conscious of their own willingness to be drawn into ego support and where to draw the line. In contrast to the pragmatists “driving the bus,” the dreamers need to be chauffeured, or at least given an explicit road map.

(3) The in-betweeners

The third group, not surprisingly, is an assortment falling between the two extremes. They throw in the most variables for the editor to manage. The main challenge with such authors is defining what they’ve written and toward whom to target it, because they frequently believe that publishing is a single-step process that leads to anyone and everyone having access to their novel and wanting to read it.

For these folks, editors need to take extra time up front to figure out what the author specifically wants and/or needs. Pitching services to them might run the gamut from manuscript evaluation to a deep developmental edit, with copyediting or line editing as options. Like the dreamers, the in-betweeners usually require dialogue and sample edits to pave the way for a successful arrangement. They understand some of the logistics and value-added aspects of editing, but might have to be educated or convinced.

(4) Others

There’s a fourth group of authors that indie editors are wise to steer clear of, although editors don’t have to work hard to avoid this group because its members don’t really want to be edited — although they often have strong opinions about it.

Such authors fall into two camps. One disdains editors completely, while the other thinks editors overcharge. It’s rare to receive inquiries from either faction, but occasionally an author who recognizes that editing helps goes searching for someone to provide that help — at the cheapest possible price. An editor’s best practice when that happens is to steer them to one of the low-dollar bidding sites and wish them well.

Patterns and particulars

In simplistic terms, indie authors cluster into black, white, and gray areas, each seeking different levels of editorial involvement. Understanding these clusters helps editors form a strategy for approaching and accommodating their differences.

In all cases, frank and polite communication before committing to the job is imperative. So is a contract that spells out scope of work, and payment and delivery terms. The goal — always — is to avoid either or both parties receiving something different from what they expect and desire. Considering authors in broad types can also help editors evaluate their personal limits and design their service offerings for maximum mutual benefit.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences

March 17, 2021

Thinking Fiction: The Book as an Object

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 5:40 pm

Carolyn Haley

Writing a novel has often been likened to having a baby. The analogy is apt, in terms of gestation, obsession, pain, thrill, frustration, and all that goes with the long-term development of a new life.

Less often discussed is what happens later in the process, when it’s time to push the fledgling out of the nest.

In literary terms, this translates to finishing a book and letting it go to flop or fly. Some writers can’t do that, for any of three reasons:

1) Insecurity. They fear they will fail, or be laughed at, or put down.

2) Perfectionism. They can’t stop fine-tuning, because they believe a state of perfection can be achieved.

3) Brainwashing. They’ve been drilled by gurus to make their work “the best it can be” and believe that anything less is undeserving to be published, so their book is never ready.

The reverse also happens — some writers rush their books out the door in eagerness for publication, and don’t give their work the time and attention it deserves (including not budgeting money or time for editing and proofreading).

Either way, there’s a mental transition that has to occur between writing and publishing. A novel’s natural lifecycle is to transform from a private idea to a publicly exposed product. Along the way, it takes on a life of its own and the author is progressively edged aside.

Transformation phase 1

During draft composition, a story belongs exclusively to its author. Once the manuscript is completed and somebody else reads it, however, the transformation from idea to object begins.

Many authors test their ideas through beta readers to get their first sense of how their material can be perceived outside their own head. The more beta readers, the more different ideas and opinions push against the author’s sensibilities and imagination. What the author initially conceived starts to change in their own minds as well as on the page.

When the book reaches an editor, the real transition begins. Professional editors have no personal connection to the author. Their relationship is a business one, and their concern is only the material the author has created. This is not to suggest that the author-editor relationship is or should ever be indifferent or adversarial; rather, most editors get fully engaged in the material and devote themselves to helping the author cultivate it into a product that will draw readers.

But to the editor, the book is a “thing” — a narrative to be analyzed and polished and, if necessary, reformulated, until it is solid enough to go out the door and connect with its readers. For editors, working on a manuscript is a job as well as a calling, and the manuscript is weighed and measured against standards including, but also extending beyond, the author’s own criteria.

Transformation phase 2

Once a manuscript has been polished, it’s presented to one of three types of people: agents and acquiring editors (traditional publishing), or directly to readers (self-publishing). For the first two, the agent/editor evaluates the book as something they love and can commit to, or don’t love and reject for taste, or love but reject because it can’t be sold in enough quantities to justify the cost of producing it. In other words, the book has become a commodity and is subject to an accounting sheet. The author may still be in the equation, because with agents and publishers, contracts are involved, but at that point, author control and preference start sliding to the back seat, and what has been lovingly carried by their own hands is transferred to someone else’s.

When an author self-publishes their book and promotes it directly to readers, the disassociation happens more slowly but still becomes real. To self-publish, an author must turn a manuscript into a product people can buy. That process involves making all kinds of decisions about style, format, category, distribution, cover design, tagline, blurb, and so forth. These decisions force authors to look at their work as a thing that has to appeal to readers outside their own sphere.

Often, especially with first-time authors, submitting a book to the wider world is fraught with angst, discouragement, and confusion. It’s particularly galling for those who go the traditional-publishing route and submit, get rejected, submit, get rejected, for what could be dozens of times over many years. It’s hard for authors to realize that it’s not themselves being rejected, when what they conceived in passion, and invested a big chunk of their lives into expressing and molding, brings no positive result.

Even when the big day comes and the book is finally accepted, the process becomes more depersonalizing when contracts come into play. Suddenly the “baby” morphs into intellectual property involving rights and licensing, then gets kicked around like a soccer ball during further stages of editing and all the choices and compromises involved in turning it into a purchasable product.

Sooner or later, authors have to detach emotionally from their work and share the publisher’s perspective, whether they are working with a traditional house or producing the book themselves. The book must become an object to get into readers’ hands, by whatever tools and techniques work.

Transformation phase 3

After all the transitional tasks are accomplished, and the book is published, then come sales and reviews — and a new wave of learning just how many different ways the product can be perceived. By then, it’s difficult for an author to remember the once-upon-a-time when the challenge of the day was wringing words out of the soul and getting them into the right order to capture the author’s vision and feelings. The book has flown from the nest, destined for a fate that depends on myriad factors mainly beyond the author’s control.

The weirdest experience some authors have is meeting their readers, through signings or conferences or interviews (online or in person), when their personal self who created the book faces the results of what the book turned into. Depending on their personality type, this can be the most fulfilling part of the process, or the most alienating.

Regardless, the path to publication involves transformation inside the author as well as within the work itself. That’s why it’s important for authors to decide early what they want from publishing.

The best practice is to ignore the question during drafting the book, so the intense, private creation experience can proceed uninhibited. Then, when revising, but before showing the work to any beta readers or editors, authors can dream about what they want for success, and consider what they’re willing to settle for and what they don’t want at all. Understanding their goals and boundaries helps them direct their feedback readers on the best way to revise the book without wasting time, energy, and emotion on dead ends and sidetracks.

It comes down to authors owning their work. Ownership becomes literal once the book has turned into a thing, but while getting there, it’s a psychological state that reduces emotional distress and eases the transition between art and object.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

February 19, 2021

Thinking Fiction: Does Spelling Really Matter?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:18 pm
Tags: , , ,

Carolyn Haley, Columnist

When it comes to creating books, there are three answers to the question of whether spelling really matters: yes, no, and “it depends.” Usually all three come into play over the course of a book’s life.

At the draft and revision stages of composing a book, spelling doesn’t matter. That’s when authors focus on content — organizing ideas, devising plots, developing characters, turning sentences, building worlds. Prose changes constantly during composition, and only the author (and perhaps a personal support team) sees the work in progress.

By the time a manuscript is submitted for professional consideration, however, or released to public readership, spelling has come to matter a lot.

In between composing and publication lie the variables and decisions that fall under “it depends.”

It depends on the author, the editor, the publisher, the country in which all or any of them live, and the countries in which the book will be distributed. It also depends on which resources the various parties use for reference and guidance. In English alone, alternatives abound.

Most authors expect editors to be expert spellers, grammarians, and evaluators. Most editors are, which is why authors and editors have long formed a yin/yang balance that results in great books. Editors are expected to recognize not only a true misspelling (typo), but also a word that is legitimately spelled in different ways.

What authors may not know is how editors determine which variant is correct. Fanning through any few dictionaries shows that not every authority agrees on how to spell a particular word. It often happens that an author refers to Dictionary A, which spells something like non-disclosure or e-mail with a hyphen, while Dictionary B, used by an editor, spells both words solid (nondisclosure, email).

Even within an individual dictionary, one or more variations may be allowed, such as ax and axe. Nowadays, with online dictionaries available, there might also be differences between a print edition and an online edition of the same one, owing to the online version’s ability to update faster. Thus, for example, the initial cap in Internet, shown in the latest print edition, may appear in lowercase in the online edition. Common usage drives changes in caps and spellings as well as meanings, and even coins new terms (e.g., some dictionaries now allow Google the company name to be used as a verb, to google). Changes are likely to appear in the next edition of a print dictionary, but that might not be published for several years and so will always be a step behind its rapid-response online version.

Meanwhile, different countries favor different spellings. Sticking with English, there are American, British, Canadian, and Australian variants, as well as local and regional versions within each country.

Editors understand this, and recognize that it’s not so much “correctness” that matters but consistency and context. For instance, American editors working on American authors’ novels will draw upon American-English dictionaries and style guides, whereas Canadian (etc.) editors will refer to dictionaries and style guides preferred in their country. In crossover situations, such as an American editor working on a British writer’s book, the editor normally consults with the author or the author’s publisher to determine which standard to apply.

That’s why we see American books with favorite and color and British books with favourite and colour, along with differences like gray and grey, check and cheque, while and whilst, toward and towards, plus prefixes and suffixes added to root words with and without a hyphen.

None of these are wrong unless they switch around in an individual manuscript, or appear in an inappropriate context, such as an American novel released in the United States using British spellings, or vice versa. Most books are reedited (or re-edited) before being published in other countries, and often retitled (or re-titled). Conversely, self-published books that are globally available online (or on-line or on line) the moment they come out tend to be edited in the author’s native English, and stay that way.

Editors on staff at a publishing house generally use the preferred house spelling and style guides for editing manuscripts. Likewise, independent editors working in a narrow niche use the guides that dominate in their arm of the industry. Independent editors working with independent authors have free rein in their choices, but most educate themselves in the guides that are predominant in their channels, and stock their reference libraries accordingly. Editors by nature are inclined to load our libraries with all the reference works we can get their hands on, so we can almost always accommodate whatever language issues come our way.

Consistency is the aspect that really counts in spelling. When there are multiple variations for a word, the editor’s task is to decide which one to use and stick with it. This level of detail grooming usually occurs during copyediting (or copy-editing or copy editing). Many copyeditors (or copy editors) prepare a style sheet for each project in which they specify the reference works guiding their decisions, and use the style sheet to note any variations used in the manuscript. This shows the author what was done and why, without the editor having to load the manuscript with explanations or extra markups.

Authors who have preferences that they care about deeply — regarding either the reference resources they want used or specific personal preferences like that e in axe or grey — need to let their editors know before work begins so misunderstandings don’t occur, and work doesn’t have to be undone or redone. In the absence of author direction, most editors will follow the dictionaries and style guides they’ve determined are suitable for the project.

The purpose of consistency and correctness in any aspect of a book is to present a clean and professional product to the people destined to read it. Typos and irregularities distract readers from content, and in some cases cause negative reactions. Manuscripts being considered for publication might be rejected if the material is sloppy and inconsistent, because those issues give the impression the author hasn’t done their homework and the work isn’t ready to be published. Sometimes sloppiness means rejection simply because the extra work required to bring the material up to the publisher’s standard will cost too much time and money to warrant accepting the book. Other times, manuscripts are winnowed out of contention without even being read, solely because of errors and irregularities that are visible in a quick scan — and spelling errors are very easy to spot. An agent or acquiring editor whose desk is piled high with submissions might reduce that pile to manageable proportions by automatically rejecting any manuscript that looks messy or amateurish, as much due to spelling issues as to presentation (but that’s a topic for another time).

Readers on the consumer end judge books by their interior presentation as well as by their covers. Many a book has been skipped over by potential readers in response to reviews dissing it for sloppiness. Even Amazon, which opened doors to so many self-publishing writers, has responded to reader complaints by instituting quality standards that may result in a book being removed from Amazon’s site until the problems are fixed. The most brilliant, creative, informative content can be unappreciated or unread if it’s riddled with misspellings or other issues. Readers want and deserve the respect that’s signaled by material as well written and well edited as the parties involved can make it.

So, yes, spelling matters in the end.

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

January 11, 2021

Thinking Fiction: What’s Next for Novelists?

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:58 pm
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Carolyn Haley

Thanks to our collective and often-divisive experiences over the past year, I’ll wager we all agree that 2020 was one heckuva rough ride with long-term consequences yet to be known.

The events have introduced new concerns specific to fiction writers, editors, agents, and publishers. For instance, should authors of contemporary fiction include the current pandemic in their stories? The question arises from the shock that what was contemporary and normal a year ago has changed dramatically. Nobody wants to be seen as trivializing or attempting to profit from the pandemic, but it happened, and it has affected the world in many ways, some of which are likely to last. How to factor this into modern novels?

With the exception of extremely prolific writers, most authors take at least a year to compose and polish a novel. Many take several years. Now, stories they recently conceived have had their foundations upheaved and are no longer valid if set in reality. Simple example: an office romance. Doesn’t work when people can’t go to their jobs in offices anymore, or have to wear masks and comply with social distancing requirements that can’t be fulfilled until their office space has been reconfigured. A stolen kiss in the supply room might kill one or more people instead of being an intriguing plot point.

Many contemporary-fiction authors are wondering whether they should finish their works in process (WIPs) and pretend nothing happened, trusting readers to understand and accept; revamp their works to accommodate the “new normal,” which nobody can foresee and is likely to be shifting rapidly for months or years; stop writing their book(s) altogether and wait to see what’s real when the dust settles; or put their WIPs on hold and start new stories set either solidly in pre-coronavirus times or far in the future, when it might be remembered history, like the flu pandemic of 1919.

Some commenters in publishing-related forums, along with people in private conversations, have declared that the last thing they want to read in the present or near future are stories about the 2020 nightmare. They want escape. Others are already diving into published fiction written by prescient — whether by accident or design — authors who take characters through a comparable scenario.

Category changes

These opposite tastes have long driven genre marketplace distinctions. What has abruptly changed is the timeline separating the genres.

Conventionally, a “contemporary” novel can be set anytime from, say, World War II to the present. This line of demarcation was already in flux in the publishing community, in that stories set in the 1950s through 1990s have such different mores and technology from either end — the 1930–’40s and the 2000s — that they already feel historical, especially to younger readers.

Marketing departments in publishing houses and book retailers have been rethinking where to draw the line between historical and contemporary eras. Some publishers are testing a “vintage” category to split the difference until somebody decides where to draw a new line and the majority of participants buy in.

I’ve seen suggestions that the Kennedy assassination in the United States was a turning point between As Things Were and When Things Changed. Other folks mark the moon landing as that turning point. Both occurred in the 1960s. Other folks think the attacks on the World Trade Centers in 2001 were a defining moment between the old and new eras.

Personally, I think the biggest change in common culture occurred in the late 1970s/early ’80s, when the desktop computer and internet entered millions of people’s lives. The next big shift came with the advent of widely available and affordable cellphones and GPS in the early 2000s. I focus on these as a copyeditor because they are recurrent trouble points in client manuscripts: Younger authors often take for granted that smartphones and texting have always existed, while older authors sometimes forget that modern people use them as a normal part of their lives.

Now we have a new distinction: pre-corona and post-corona, in the space of 12 months. Material that was speculative fiction or science fiction for many authors in 2019 became contemporary or dystopian fiction in 2020–’21.

Two examples

One of my clients got caught squarely in this dilemma. Only 25 years old, she conceived her story nine years ago in high school, worked on it intermittently through formative years of college and career — and suddenly found she’d created a situation so close to what’s happening today that her story took on a whole new twist and readers would interpret its title and situation differently than they would have a year ago. I got this manuscript for evaluation and was stumped for weeks about how to respond to it. She desires to publish traditionally rather than self-publish, and neither of us at this point knows how to present her work to the industry via an agent or to readers.

Something similar happened to me, too, as an author instead of an editor. I am a slow-motion novelist, taking years to work an idea into a coherent manuscript. I tend to cross genres, making my books even harder to structure and sell. Back in 2015, I came up with a new idea, and took three years to complete a working draft. I set the book in the spring of 2015, with no worries that the world might change enough to compromise the date.

In 2018, I finished it; another year passed as I circulated it through my beta readers and incorporated their suggestions; then I put it aside to marinate, finally taking it out a few months ago for a proofread, intending to self-publish this past summer. However, reading it with cold eyes revealed a huge technical honker I’d missed and had to deal with, so it’s back in revision until I can figure out a solution. My current publishing target is March 2021 — the five-year anniversary of typing the first words.

That’s fine except for one thing: It’s the first volume of a planned series. In 2016, the United States began an enormous cultural and political change with the shift of government leadership. Aspects of this would directly influence my character if she were living in that time. I do not want to go there. That means I must compress my series into eight months instead of the vague several years I had imagined.

Fortunately, I’ve only written one of the novels in the planned series, and it’s OK as-is in its time. But I have to totally rethink the rest. This problem has surprised many a novelist with more change-sensitive timelines.

The social factor

Cultural changes have introduced their own complexities. Several of my indie-author clients have asked:

•         Should they hire a sensitivity reader?

•         Is it “safe” to include mentions of certain subjects in their story, or write about a person of a gender, race, or religion that is different from the author?

•         Are they now required to include “trigger warnings” in their front matter, subtitle, or cover?

•         Should they write under a pseudonym?

•         Should they promote their books through social media or stay away because of vulnerability to “trolls” and harassment?

•         Will certain words in their title or elements of a cover image be rejected by Amazon?

Similar questions are a normal part of writing and publishing decisions. The past year’s dramas, however, have pushed some of these questions into high relief. Many more minds are pondering them, in a broader social and financial network.

It grieves me to have no answers. The best that I and my clients can do is continue evaluating and discussing each book on its own merits with the author’s individual goals in mind.

In 2021, we are living in a state of flux with questions and challenges greater than most of us have encountered in our lifetimes, all swirling together. But one thing hasn’t changed: the creativity — flexibility — subjectivity of literature. Authors always have to think about the times they write in. It happens that today, they must contemplate a new set of issues as they both compose their stories and present them to readership. It will be mighty interesting to see what future novels come out of this era!

Carolyn Haley is an award-winning novelist who lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie — and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1997 and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.net or through DocuMania. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books and has presented about editing fiction at Communication Central conferences.

December 4, 2020

Thinking Fiction: The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 2

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 11:50 am
Tags: ,

Carolyn Haley

For Part 1 of this essay, go to https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/thinking-fiction-the-indie-editor-author-equation-part-1/.

Almost every time an indie editor and indie author first connect, they are likely to have different understandings of what “editing” means, so the editor’s first and most-important task is to decide what services to offer, by name and itemized description, with a value assigned to each, and to provide that information to the author.

Since editorial vocabulary varies, the same service might have different task specifics or names among individuals and groups. Editors must make sure they and their prospects are talking about the same thing, or else a world of misunderstanding can ensue.

Both parties need to ask and answer questions until mutually satisfied. Authors need to know what they’re getting, for how much, and when; editors need to know what an author has written — genre/type of novel, state of its development, plans (or dreams) for it, and any writing/publishing experience they already have. This information gives the editor an idea of the service to propose and what to charge.

Regardless, an agreement should be done in writing. As most adults know, verbal deals have a way of drifting off course despite both parties’ best intentions, so it’s valuable to have a document that defines the deal, especially since some editing jobs can extend for months, and memories can get hazy.

An agreement can be as informal as an email exchange stating terms, conditions, schedule of payments, and delivery or a formal contract to be signed. Either way, best practice is to lock the agreement into both electronic and printed pages for file and storage in a safe backup location.

I prefer a contract for a first job with a new client, and will accept an email agreement for later jobs with the same person if our initial experience is successful. My contract is a combination of templates made available by colleagues that I tweaked to make relevant to my business, and update as times change.

Learning from other editors’ advice and some bruising experience, my basic agreement is now a 50% deposit to reserve calendar time, and payment of the balance upon completion of the work but before I deliver the files. I take a check or PayPal, and don’t start work until the deposit payment has cleared and I’ve received the signature page of the contract for my files.

This combo has worked well, but there are other ways to do any step of it. What matters is to define a basic deal package that works for you, but is not so rigid that you can’t tailor it to individual circumstances.

You can be certain that those individual circumstances will be a big factor in editing indie fiction. Storytellers’ imaginations are limitless, and their business, publishing, and financial knowledge fall across the board.

Defining services

An indie editor’s service definition includes the categories of novel you are willing and able to edit. You don’t have to be an expert in any genre; the craft of storytelling is universal, and it’s only when trying to hone a manuscript toward a specific audience that genre expertise becomes important. Focusing on a particular genre(s), though, can help in marketing your business.

Knowing your genres not only helps every project but also helps avoid getting work you don’t want. I turn down horror, erotica, and children’s fiction. Many novels cross genres, so it’s smart to ask the author to provide a short synopsis of the story and a sample from it before taking time and energy to explore the job further. For example, I love mystery and adventure, but can’t handle extreme violence or cruelty in gory details. A sample and summary usually give enough clue to whether a manuscript will be something I can handle — or not.

How much of a sample is required to make a judgment? Some editors want to see the entire manuscript. I’m unwilling to give away that time on spec, so I ask for opening pages or perhaps first chapter, just like agents and acquisition editors do. How an author launches a novel can give a good feel for their skill level and the story’s promise, and whether you want to spend weeks/months with it.

When in doubt, an alternative approach is to offer a non-editing manuscript evaluation. That way, the author gets helpful feedback and you get a paycheck for reading the book, without either of you having to invest more than might work out well in an editorial partnership.

About those sample edits

When you’re still in the wooing stage, you need to decide whether to offer a sample edit. I go on and off with that, depending on circumstance. Some prospects require it so they can compare editors’ approaches — a wise thing to do from the author’s point of view; not every author-editor combo is a good team, even if you feel compatible. That’s why the more you discuss up front, the better the chances you’ll make the right choices on your own and each other’s behalf.

Once the project is under way, you have to decide what style guides to apply to it and include this information on your style sheet (creating a style sheet is an invaluable aid in ensuring consistency and accuracy throughout a manuscript). Most novelists don’t care, but some care a lot and will give explicit instructions. Pre-contract conversations and sample edits help suss that out.

Before quoting for an editing job, determine whether it will include the extra time and labor of a style sheet. I always create one for myself, to keep track of details throughout the manuscript, but presenting it organized and useful for the client’s (and future editor’s or proofreader’s) use adds value that should be covered. Some levels of edit — such as copyediting — need this clarified more than others — such as developmental editing.

Occasionally, when I really want a line editing or copyediting project but the client’s budget won’t stretch far enough to cover my full rate, I’ll offer the edit sans style sheet and give them a discount. But I’d rather not.

Tools and techniques

Well before accepting client jobs, you need to commit to your hardware and software tools. It used to be that Microsoft Word was the universal program for writing and editing, PC or Mac, but as times change, more clients are writing in off-brand applications that might not work gracefully with Word’s track changes feature, nor some macros designed to make editing faster and more accurate. Examples are Pages for Mac, OpenOffice or LibreOffice, Scrivener, and GoogleDocs.

I’ve had trouble with all of these and reached the point where I won’t take them anymore, even if they are “compatible” with Word and come in .doc or .docx file formats. I’ve added a clause to my contract that incoming files must be native Word only (at which point, I learned how often clients don’t read every line in a contract!).

If you have the tools, skills, and knowledge to handle mixed packages, use that as an added value in your business marketing. It will become more important in the future, as will having the ability to help clients turn their manuscripts into ebooks and other forms of reading media. If going that direction doesn’t suit you, then start building a referral list of reliable and reputable colleagues who specialize in your areas of weakness.

Editor and writer?

To be an effective indie fiction editor, it’s a great asset to be a fiction writer, too. Better yet, a published one. That gives you insight into what your clients are experiencing or need to prepare for down the road, and sharpens your understanding of craft. It’s hard to transfer from nonfiction to fiction editing without a solid base in storytelling and story structure, with “story” being the key word. The bottom-line difference between nonfiction and fiction is: Nonfiction provides information, and fiction tells a story.

If you don’t write stories, then read-read-read-read-read them. Study the many “how-to” books available. I have a list of preferred guides I hand out to almost every prospect and client. These help a lot during long lead times between scheduling a job and doing it, because the author has a chance to learn more and recast their manuscript into a stronger story, which makes the editing go more smoothly.

Another important area indie editors have to understand about themselves is mental and emotional flexibility. How much can you stand when dealing with different or difficult personality types? There’s no project manager as a buffer between you and the author, who might be pouring their guts out in their novels to a point that makes you embarrassed or ill. As well, an author might be unreliable in answering emails or making payments. They might have sexist or other “-ist” characters or viewpoints in themselves or their work that offend your values. They might be dreadful writers who are only paying you for a copyedit or a proofread when what they really need is a ruthless developmental edit. You know they’re going to get bad reviews, or have their dreams shattered by trying to interest an agent or traditional publisher in a novel with maybe one chance in ten million to sell. (Lotto-type wins do happen, though, so you can never assume there’s no chance.)

In sum, know your tolerance levels and have prevention practices in place and escape clauses in your contract.

Establishing transparency

The simplest way to tame the Wild West factor of indie editing with indie authors is to be transparent. Talk as much as you can before committing to a job. Get a feel for the author and the story. Tell them directly what services you provide for what costs. Answer all of their questions. Don’t let anyone snooker you.

Most of all, take authors seriously about their art and craft. Even the most masterful and successful novelists started somewhere, and as an indie dealing with indies, you’ll find that a lot of authors are going to start with you, and rely on you to direct them. You can have a meaningful influence on their confidence and careers.

Remember, too, that many creative writers have tendencies often considered clichéd but remain generally true despite that slur. Novelists are mainly artists, not technicians or businesspeople. An editor’s job is to help the author channel their vision into a product for other people to read and enjoy.

Without the resources and support system built into a traditional publishing house, indie editors working from home offices are mainly online with invisible clients and must figure out how to manage people of hugely diverse types who consider them experts in publishing — without fully understanding how many stages and people and skills and dollars are involved. That disconnect introduces a big “bumble fumble” factor, and it’s on the editor’s head to direct discordance into partnership and manage it throughout a project.

Resources

Because indie editors work alone, they gather in online groups to help each other. Here are some resources I have drawn on or know about that colleagues might find helpful.

Copyediting-L (email discussion list)

Facebook: Fiction Editors of Earth, Editors Association of Earth, EAE Backroom

Organizations: Editorial Freelancers Association, www.the-efa.org; National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, www.naiwe.com

AbsoluteWrite

SheWrites

An American Editor: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com (my essays on AAE: https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/tag/carolyn-haley/

Blogs with helpful newsletters for both editors and authors:

The Book Designer, www.thebookdesigner.com

Alliance of Independent Authors, www.allianceindependentauthors.org

The Passive Voice, www.thepassivevoice.com

Jane Friedman, www.janeFriedman.com

Writer Beware, www.victoriastrauss.com/writer-beware/

Funds for Writers

Ivan Hoffman (legal), https://ivanhoffman.com/

Janet Reid, https://jetreidliterary.blogspot.com/

Kristine Kathryn Rush, Business Musings

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for the New York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

November 27, 2020

Thinking Fiction — The Indie Editor/Author Equation, Part 1

Carolyn Haley

In the business combination of independent editor and independent author, especially in the realm of fiction, both parties quickly learn that there are no rules to the game.

Yes, there are best practices we should all consider; and yes, editors and authors must adhere to the legalities and tax responsibilities required by their locations; and yes, there are generally accepted ethical guidelines in conducting financial transactions for services.

Aside from those, indie fiction writing-editing-publishing is the new Wild West!

That’s because anyone can open shop as an editor, just as anyone can write a novel. There are no educational or technical qualifications to be either; no licensure mandated, no expertise needed beyond functional literacy. No official entity is watching or managing; no sanctioned organization or employer is mentoring, evaluating, or penalizing. Individual editors and authors must decide on their own how to operate together, and make personal judgments on what constitutes “good enough.”

This combination almost guarantees messy relationships and novels. The negative results are well-represented in the marketplace, and well-covered in other articles and blogs. This essay focuses on how to avoid those messes and succeed as an indie editor working with indie novelists.

First steps — understanding each other

It starts with understanding what “indie” means. On the surface, “indie” is merely shorthand for “independent.”

For editors, that means “self-employed” (aka “freelance”) versus being on the payroll of a publishing house.

For authors, it means essentially the same thing — they are not writing on behalf of a company, only for themselves. They might plan to self-publish their novel from the start or decide to do so after failing to interest traditional publishers in their work, or they might seek to publish traditionally and persevere toward that end. Any of these authors might seek indie editors to help them advance toward their goals. That’s why we can’t consider “indie publishing” to be synonymous with “self-publishing.”

Options and efforts

It frequently falls on indie editors to help indie authors distinguish between their options and guide their efforts. The main distinction between traditional and indie publishing is in which direction the money goes, combined with author involvement and control.

In the traditional publishing model, the author never parts with a dime. The publishing house bears all of the editing, proofing, production, marketing/promotion, and distribution costs, and eventually the author gets royalties on sales (after earning out any advance), at a modest percentage.

Actually, it isn’t quite true that no money ever comes out of the author’s pocket in traditional publishing (trad-pub). To gain access to the best houses, and often any house at all, novelists need to sign with an agent. Agents offer many valuable benefits to an author, but in exchange they take a commission of 10–20% of the author’s earnings. That indirect tap is often overlooked in the trad-pub vs. indie-pub decision.

Because trad-pub has become extremely competitive, with more authors struggling for fewer slots, many authors hire indie editors before submitting their work to agents and acquisition editors to help get their novels onto the playing field. They also might purchase help to navigate the bewildering maze of queries and synopses. Sometimes that pre-submission investment pays off — big time! — but most authors never recover their investments.

When their novels do get picked up by a trad-pub house, they’ll likely have to pay for their own marketing and promotion to keep their books available over the long term. Although this happens a lot with small publishing houses, it’s becoming increasingly true with big houses, too, so the original economic advantage of traditional publishing is slowly being eroded by changing market forces and consumer practices.

On the control and involvement side: In traditional publishing, authors (or their agents) must negotiate what rights are granted to the publisher for what terms. Assuming they reach a satisfactory contract, the book goes into production and out of the author’s control. They might have some say in the cover design or marketing campaign, and/or acceptance/rejection input over editorial changes, but in many publishing deals, authors are left out altogether between signing the contract and seeing the finished book.

Indie publishing is the reverse. The author pays for everything up front, but gets the full return of any income after expenses, and retains full control of rights, and full or semi-control during production.

For example, if the author is publishing through an author-services company, such as BookBaby, then that entity might perform tasks the author isn’t involved in (e.g., editing, design, production) as part of a purchased package. But most times, authors get authorization control.

Danger comes if an unsavvy author hooks up with an unscrupulous company, which might confuse authors into signing away rights out of ignorance and deliver a sloppy, unprofessional product as well.

Authors who pursue true self-publishing are their own business: a micro-size company with full decision-making authority and retention of all rights. These author-publishers are wholly responsible for hiring editors, proofreaders, cover and interior designers, typesetters and formatters, audiobook narrators and producers, publicists, promoters, schedulers, accountant, attorney. Not to mention ensuring that all tasks are performed, and managing the outgo and income of the enterprise.

Real costs

Many new authors have no idea how much money publishing requires (thousands!), because for generations, those costs were buried in publishing house salaries and administration overhead — information not publicly available. When indie authors move outside that model to get indie help, they are often rocked back on their heels by “sticker shock.” This is a regular problem for indie editors seeking clients, because appalled authors who haven’t done their homework aren’t prepared to pay professional rates.

Originally, all book editors worked in-house for publishing houses. Over decades of economic, cultural, and media changes, editorial staff began getting pushed off payrolls and forced to go freelance or change occupation. Meanwhile, computers and the Internet made it easier to work remotely, drawing more editors into the field from myriad directions.

This change was accelerated by the entry of Amazon into the arena along with other author-service providers and aggregators/distributors, which transformed indie publishing from a pure vanity exercise to an intentional option for authors. In turn, it has increased demand for editorial support outside traditional publishing houses.

Today’s indie editors are predominantly sole-proprietor businesses who might contract with a publishing house, or an author-services provider, or directly with an individual author — maybe all of the above — to perform specific editorial services at self-established rates.

Editing roles

When working for a traditional publisher or author-services provider, indie editors deal with an intermediary, who might be called any combination of production or project manager/editor/coordinator. The indie editor has no contact with an author beyond the back-and-forth of files (sometimes not even that — indie editor provides edited files to the coordinator and never sees or hears about them again). The institution pays the editor, under terms that may or may not be negotiable. Editors must adhere to house rules of process and style (sometimes flexible; most times not), and usually wait weeks or months for their paychecks.

In contrast, when an indie editor works directly for an indie author, nobody else is involved. It’s a one-on-one private arrangement with lots of room to go smoothly — or horribly. Both parties are responsible for communicating what they want and need and expect; for establishing and agreeing to rules of engagement, and adhering to them; and being willing to discuss changes in a grown-up and flexible way.

In other words, they must make their own rules.

Time and experience among indie editors and authors are establishing successful approaches. Still, choices must constantly be made, be they for basic operation or how to organize an individual project. See Part 2 of this column for insights into what those choices could be and how to navigate them.

Part 2 of this column will be published on Friday, December 4.

Carolyn Haley, an award-winning novelist, lives and breathes novels. Although specializing in fiction, she edits across the publishing spectrum — fiction and nonfiction, corporate and indie —  and is the author of three novels and a nonfiction book. She has been editing professionally since 1977, and has had her own editorial services company, DocuMania, since 2005. She can be reached at dcma@vermontel.netor through her websites, DocuMania and Borealis Books. Carolyn also reviews for theNew York Journal of Books, and has presented on editing fiction at Communication Central‘s Be a Better Freelancer® conferences.

November 23, 2020

Back to the present

Filed under: Editorial Matters — An American Editor @ 3:44 pm

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

It’s been too long since I’ve posted here; I apologize and plead a boatload of work (a good thing!) and recuperating from major surgery in early October. I’m pretty much back to normal and hope to be more active here in coming weeks as we try to wrap up this crazy, scary year and look to the new one with hope.

While I figure out what you might like to see from An American Editor, two colleagues have stepped up with new content for you. Carolyn Haley‘s new Thinking Fiction column is at https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/27/thinking-fiction-the-indie-editor-author-equation-part-1/, and a three-part series from a new contributor, Geoff Hart, began this week at https://americaneditor.wordpress.com/2020/11/25/finding-working-with-and-retaining-esl-clients-part-1/.

Thank you for your patience and presence!

September 25, 2020

2020 Be a Better Freelancer® conference is a hit!

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Owner

An American Editor

The 15th annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference, held virtually in October 2020, continued the partnership between Communication Central, the An American Editor blog, and the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) as co-host and PerfectIt as lead sponsor.

Another sponsor was new to the conference: The Six-Figure Freelancer and its author, Laura Pennington Briggs.

We had several hundred registrations for our first all-virtual event and more than 100 actual participants. There was only one technical glitch — a huge relief! — and that was quickly resolved, thanks to the skills of NAIWE executive director April Michelle Davis.

Session topics included an exciting array of current tips, resources and insights about business basics, expansion, self-publishing and more.

For most of the past 15 years, “Be a Better Freelancer”® has been the only conference specifically for freelancers in the editorial world — writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, desktop publishers, graphic artists, photographers, website creators, etc.

The 15th annual Communication Central-NAIWE Be a Better Freelancer conference offered a strong emphasis on opportunities in the self-publishing realm, as well as resources for overall business success, productivity and expansion. Sessions were consecutive rather than concurrent.

The conference event was online and free to all. Recordings of sessions are available at $30 each after the event; here’s the link to purchase any or all session recordings: https://naiwe.selz.com/categories/be-a-better-freelancer-conference

We plan to return to the full in-person format with concurrent sessions in each timeslot in 2021 in St. Louis, Missouri.

Thank you to everyone who participated, especially our knowledgeable and generous speakers, and our sponsors.

Topics and speakers included the following.

Startup Essentials and Business Basics, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
If you’re thinking about launching a freelance communications business, there’s a lot to do before making your plans known to the world and in your first few months. Get the basics of structuring and announcing your freelance writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, website, book production, graphics or other publishing-related business from a freelancer who’s been leading the way for many years.

Getting Your Self-Publishing Client to a Finished Product, Dick Margulis
Opportunities for an editor to break into traditional book publishing are vanishing, but they continue to expand rapidly in self-publishing. Independent publishing is now an established and accepted part of the publishing industry. In this session, you will learn how to help your independent author–publisher clients produce the high-quality books they want. Learn how you can work with and guide independent authors in a way that is fair to them and worthwhile for you. The session will be an overview of the independent publishing process, including ethical, financial and practical considerations, to help you figure out where you can fit into the process in a way that works best for you.

This session will provide a comprehensive and detailed summary of the steps and skills entailed in producing a book that meets commercial standards. Armed with this knowledge, you can guide your client toward intelligent decisions about who should do what. The self-publishing author is a publisher. Publishing a book is a business activity. Making a book is a craft activity. Self-publishing should not be do-it-yourself publishing, and you can partner with others to produce the book so the (self-)publisher can focus on marketing, sales and distribution — their proper role.

Perfecting Your Process with PerfectIt — Beginner Level, Daniel Heuman
No one became an editor because they like checking for consistency of hyphenation and capitalization. Thankfully, there is a faster way to do it! PerfectIt is an add-in for Word that speeds up checking while still leaving you in control of every decision. Thousands of editors around the world use PerfectIt to fix these small details so they can focus on the work that matters.

This session is primarily for complete beginners who have never used PerfectIt before. It will cover what the software can and cannot find, with an overview of all the styles and checks that it can run. It will show you how suggestions vary by location, and every location and suggestion needs to be checked for context. It’s open for users on Macs or PCs.

Perfecting Your Process with PerfectIt — Advanced Level, Daniel Heuman
Spending hours checking that every detail conforms to a style manual is time-consuming and can distract you from the most important work of substantive editing. There is an easier way! This session will show how you can use PerfectIt to select a style sheet, build your own custom style sheet and check your preferences. The session will explain how to use PerfectIt’s advanced functionality with a focus on custom styles and custom checking. It will show how you can share style sheets with colleagues and set up a different style sheet for each client and every style that you work with. This will be an advanced workshop that is primarily for editors who already use PerfectIt on a PC with Windows.

Questions and answers; general networking

Success in Working with Self-Publishing Authors, Katherine Pickett
With the continuing surge in self-publishing, more and more editors find themselves working with self-publishing authors, and many of them have no idea how the publishing process works. Although many editors have worked with writers for a long time, the needs of self-publishers are different, and anticipating those needs is key to good results. This session will help you avoid the pitfalls and find success when working with self-publishers. Topics include:
• Where to find self-publishing clients
• How to estimate time and cost of projects
• Why and how to set boundaries
• How to protect yourself from scam artists
• Areas of job growth
• Where to find additional resources for self-publishers

The Magic of Macros, April Michelle Davis
The more we can do to increase efficiency in the writing, editing or proofreading process, the more valuable we are to employers and clients, and the more we can earn. Get the scoop on creating and using macros in Word to make your workflow faster, more efficient, more accurate and more productive from author and editor April Michelle Davis, executive director of NAIWE and a proven expert in this important approach tool.

Editing Fiction in the Independent Arena, Carolyn Haley
More and more authors are publishing their own novels these days, whether solo or through a service. Most of them want — and need — editors just as much as their traditionally published peers, but there’s no formal infrastructure to support them, making indie publishing a free-for-all for both authors and editors. This session will address your questions about being an independent editor serving independent authors. Send your questions in advance for discussion during the session.

Bigger and Better — Expanding an Existing Freelance Business, Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
After your freelance business has been up and running for a while, it’s time to think about how to make it more successful. Should you offer additional services? Look for new sources of clients? Get more training? Become more visible? Learn about ways to “grow” your business from Communication Central owner and conference creator Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, who has expanded her freelance business from writing only to providing editing, proofreading, websites, public speaking and event planning.

Questions and answers; general networking

The Business of Being a Business, April Michelle Davis
It takes more than good writing skills, a sharp eye for typos, a love of reading, the ability to alphabetize, a cellphone camera, etc., to be a successful writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, graphic artist or any other freelancer. Succeeding means taking seriously the concept of being in business. You can be brilliant at what you do and still fail if you don’t set up your freelance effort as a business and treat it as a serious venture. Find out how to incorporate key business skills and tools to make your freelancing a success.

Speaker bios

• Writer and editor April Michelle Davis (www.editorialinspirations.com) is executive director of the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors (NAIWE) and an expert in macros, Word and business-organizing resources.

She is the chapter coordinator for the Virginia chapter of the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and past chair and website administrator for the Mid- & South-Atlantic chapter of the American Society for Indexing. She has published two booklets through the EFA, A Guide for the Freelance Indexer and Choosing an Editor: What You Need to Know, and a young-adult novel, A Princess in Disguise.

Davis is a lifetime member of the ACES: The Society for Editing and a contributing member of the Christian Proofreaders and Editors Network.

She has a master of professional studies degree in publishing from George Washington University;  a bachelor of arts degree in English from Messiah College; and certificates in editing (University of Virginia), book publishing (University of Virginia) and professional editing (EEI Communications).

Before starting Editorial Inspirations in 2001, Davis was an assistant editor at the National Society of Professional Engineers and a program assistant for the American Prosecutors Research Institute.

Carolyn Haley lives fiction as an editor, author, reader, and reviewer. She has been editing professionally since 1977 and as DocuMania (documania.us) since 2006, working with publishers, packagers, and indie authors. She also has written three novels, which have been published both traditionally and independently (carolynhaley.wordpress.com). She is also the fiction columnist for An American Editor.

• Daniel Heuman is the CEO and founder of Intelligent Editing (intelligentediting.com), and developer of PerfectIt, which is used by thousands of professional editors around the world. He has spoken at conferences of Communication Central, ACES, the Chartered Institute
of Editing and Proofreading, Editors Canada, SENSE, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and many other organizations.

Dick Margulis (www.dmargulis.com) focuses on thoughtful editing, appropriate design, expert production and comprehensive project management for publishers of all sizes. He learned to set type at an early age and has been studying and practicing typography ever since, becoming a go-to resource for colleagues and independent authors interested in book publishing and memoirs. He is the co-author with Karin Cather of the invaluable book The Paper It’s Written On: Defining Your Relationship with an Editing Client, which he and Cather developed after presenting a session about contracts at a past Communication Central conference.

Margulis has more than four decades of experience in helping companies and authors communicate effectively, internally and externally. He has made significant contributions to client projects such as corporate identity, including logo design; user manuals and technical documentation; web and intranet sites; books and magazines; and much more. He is known for his deep understanding of and skill in typography and book production.

• Katherine Pickett is the owner of POP Editorial Services, LLC (www.POPediting.net) and author of Perfect Bound: How to Navigate the Book Publishing Process Like a Pro.

She worked in-house with McGraw-Hill Professional and Elsevier Inc. for seven years before starting POP in 2006. Through POP, she offers copyediting, proofreading, and developmental editing to authors and publishers across the country. She is an active member of the EFA and president of the Montgomery County chapter of the Maryland Writers’ Association. She has been educating writers and indie publishers about the book-publishing industry since 2008.

Ruth E. “I can write about anything”® Thaler-Carter started Communication Central in 2006 to serve and bring together colleagues at all stages of their freelance careers. She is the author/publisher of “Get Paid to Write: Getting Started as a Freelance Writer” and author of “Freelancing 101: Launching Your Editorial Business” for the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), with a new 2020 edition including contributions by Robin Martin. She presents webinars and in-person sessions on freelancing, the basics of editing and proofreading, websites for freelancers, and related topics for the EFA, NAIWE, Cat Writers Association, American Copy Editors Society (ACES; she was one of the first ACES freelancers), Association Media & Publishing, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), Writers and Books, International Association of Business Communicators, and other professional organizations, including the UK’s Society for Editors and Proofreaders.

Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor and proofreader who has been published and worked on projects internationally, nationally, regionally and locally. She writes, edits and proofreads material in everything from the arts to the metric system to animals, education, communications, statistics and more.

Often called the Queen of Networking for her extensive involvement in professional organizations and ability to connect colleagues with projects, resources and each other, she is the NAIWE Board of Experts member for networking; Resources chair of the SPJ Freelance Community; newsletter editor and chapter co-coordinator for the EFA; communications director for the St. Louis chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators; and more.

If you need more …

If you have questions, feel free to contact Communication Central here or use the contact form.

Read conference Testimonials here

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